Just forget It

Is there someone you wished you had never met? Somewhere you wish you had never gone? Something you wish you had never seen? Even if you cared enough, how would you go about changing these things? You could go back in time. No, wait, that’s not possible. You could go to therapy. But that doesn’t always work. You could erase the memory, like they do in the movies. I bet you thought that that’s not possible either. Well, think again.

Neuroscientists actually know how to delete recent memories without changing deep-rooted memories. In fact, recent research developments have shown that even deep-rooted memories could be erased.

But how exactly does all of this work?

It’s not like the treatment Clementine goes through in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And it’s not like the “neuralizer” that Agent Kay uses in Men in Black. Actually, it’s a lot simpler — it’s just a pill. “It’s the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain, or guilt,” said Dr. Leon Kass, who chaired the President’s Council in an interview with the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, for the Village Voice in 2003.

Memories form when synapses (connections between nerve cells) become stronger. This strength varies depending on the duration of the memory, which is evident from the fact that there are several different types of memories: short-term memories last a few hours, while long-term memories are permanent. Memories increase in strength based on the number of “firings” the synapses receive. “Firings” allow a flow of ions to drain some of the voltage from the neuron. When the voltage is sufficiently low, it sends an impulse to its axon, in turn sending a signal to the next neuron, creating a bond. These “firings” may be triggered by adrenaline, which releases neurotransmitters and hormones and consolidates memories. This is the way that memory-enhancing drugs, such as Ritalin, and the short-term effects from caffeine and nicotine work.

Scientists are creating a drug that could block this transmission and weaken the network, thus ensuring that the memory won’t “stick.” The human brain is extremely complex, so it’s not easy to isolate one specific memory and “zap” it, so to speak. Deep-rooted memories, especially, may be interconnected, making it impossible to erase one without changing another. As Dr. William B. Hurlbut, a consulting professor in biology at Stanford University, said in an interview with the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, “The pattern of our personality is like a Persian rug. It is built one knot at a time, each woven into the others. There’s a continuity to self, a sense that who we are is based upon solid, reliable experience. We build our whole interpretation and understanding of the world based upon that experience or on the accuracy of our memories. If you disrupt those memories, remove continuity, what you have is an erosion of personhood.”

These drugs are not meant to help you get over your ex-boyfriend, but they will help you get over your fear of dogs, or erase a traumatic experience like rape. According to Scientific American Mind, studies have shown that 49 percent of rape victims, as well as 17 percent of people who survive serious car accidents and 14 percent of people who lose a family member, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These events all produce an extremely high level of emotion, and therefore an extremely strong memory. If these people were treated immediately after the experience, or after an “attack,” doctors could interfere with the synthesis of new proteins (which make the neural connections stronger), thus preventing the formation of a long-term memory.

Memory erasing is certainly not impossible, but it’s not exactly a reality either. Even if the drugs were perfected, there would by many legal issues — as there were in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — if it were to go public. There is no doubt that it would be useful for therapeutic treatment, but it could easily be abused. Memories define a person; they are often the only explanation for human behavior. If someone could control our memories we’d lose our freedom, and life would turn into a rather scary movie.

Just imagine how vulnerable everyone would be. People would be able to get away with any crime, from murder to theft to rape, as long as they erased the memories of the victims and witnesses. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak is able to have an affair with his secretary, Mary, by erasing her memory each time they get together, ensuring that she will never feel guilty. Think of all the emotions that would disappear! You could just take a pill and never feel guilty, or sad, or scared, or humiliated… It would be extremely tempting to do “socially unacceptable” things if you knew society would never remember.

Perhaps Mary said it best when she quoted Alexander Pope in his poem Eloisa to Abelard: “How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d”

Maybe it’s best to leave the idea of memory erasing to the movies. There’s enough drama and action in the real world, anyway.